Blocked and Loaded
What if Miller Huggins hadn't opted for a shake-up of his starting nine on June 2, 1925 and what if Wally Pipp had not suffered a skull fracture a month later? Is it conceivable that the Yankees would have missed out on Lou Gehrig's .295/.365/.531 partial seaon in 1925? Would his .313/.420/.549 never have come to be in 1926 and can you imagine having a guy riding the pine who is capable of the .373/.474/.765 line Gehrig put up in 1927?!?
It's an extreme example but one that manifests the opportunity cost of letting a younger, more talented player take a backseat to an "established" veteran. The phenomenon is often referred to as "blocking"; when a player who is younger, in all likelihood better and most likely cheaper takes a back seat to a veteran whose performance fails to live up to his reputation. Heading into 2007, there are a number of players that slot outside their clubs' current starting nine depth charts who almost certainly would be a better option than the guy in front of him. I will try and highlight some of the coming season's most egregious block candidates around the Bigs and point to a couple of projection systems, PECOTA and ZIPS, to help evidence my choices.
Matt Diaz, Atlanta Braves
PECOTA (AVG/OBP/SLG) ZIPS (AVG/OBP/SLG) Matt Diaz .302/.345/.486 .311/.348/.483 Jeff Francoeur .288/.330/.506 .268/.303/.469
Jeff Francoeur is the local kid who burst onto the scene in the Summer of 2005 but has cooled ever since. His raw athleticism and strength make scouts drool while his 2006 season of 29 home runs and 103 RBI's serve to cloak just how big of an offensive liability he is. His .293 on-base and 23 walks versus 132 strike outs in 686 plate appearances last year tell you all you need to know about him. For his part Matt Diaz is a dependable item. He has hit respectably whenever given regular time and plays a solid enough corner outfield. Atlanta's left field job should be his.
Josh Fields, Chicago White Sox
PECOTA ZIPS Josh Fields .260/.328/.459 .262/.336/.445 Scott Podsednik .264/.329/.371 .261/.331/.354 Darin Erstad .241/.295/.321 .273/.326/.379
Josh Fields has played third base for most of his career but has also played some outfield and almost certainly is athletic enough to make the switch fulltime. The White Sox even list him on their depth chart as an outfielder. Unfortunately, there is a gaggle of mediocre outfielders crowding the outfield scene on the South Side. In addition to Scott Podsednik and Darrin Erstad, there is also Ryan Sweeney, a couple of years younger than Fields who may develop into the better player but for now is more or less the same hitter with significantly less pop. The Pale Hose hopes for 2007 in part rest on Ozzie Guillen realizing Fields is his best option for left field.
Matt Murton, Chicago Cubs
PECOTA ZIPS Matt Murton .304/.365/.476 .299/.361/.446 Jacque Jones .284/.343/.473 .263/.320/.456
I am willing to concede that in this instance maybe the defensive gap more than makes up the offensive difference but I don't know. Murton has the much more sound approach at the plate, is six years Jones's junior and much cheaper. In other words, Murton looks like the superior option, particularly if the Cubbies could find someone to take Jones off of their hands.
Chris Ianetta, Colorado Rockies
PECOTA ZIPS Chris Ianetta .291/.379/.481 .269/.358/.465 Javy Lopez .287/.339/.472 .260/.312/.399
There is a major tenet of team-building that Dan O'Dowd and the Rockies seem to be violating heading into 2007. When it is time to give a youngster a job, when the evidence suggests that he has demonstraded the ability to handle everyday duties, you give him a job. Insuring yourself by tacking a Javy Lopez on cheaply for one year is all well and good but the signs I have seen this off-season point to the Rox planning on Lopez being the starter. It's too bad. The 24 year-old Ianetta has the potential to be one of the better hitting catchers in baseball right now, which is reason alone to play him. When you consider the potential to stunt his development by burying him behind Lopez, then the decision to start him on the bench drifts from stupidity towards lunacy.
Billy Butler, Kansas City Royals
PECOTA ZIPS Billy Butler .295/.347/.455 .292/.339/.447 Reggie Sanders .259/.323/.466 .252/.312/.438
I understand that Billy Butler is only 21 and you need to balance long-term and short-term interests for your club. But I also understand that a downtrodden franchise needs to demonstrate to its fanbase that it is serious about winning. Trotting the 39 year old Sanders out there everyday for production guaranteed to be well below acceptable levels for a Major League corner outfielder messages that the status quo is perfectly acceptable in Kansas City. Alternatively, handing the left field reins over to Butler, who would join quality players David DeJesus and Emil Brown in the outfield and fellow stand-out rookie Alex Gordon in the lineup, delivers an altogether different message. Give Butler the job.
Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers
PECOTA ZIPS Matt Kemp .295/.346/.507 .292/.342/.478 Juan Pierre .290/.337/.371 .296/.341/.380
Signing crummy players to long, expensive contracts is bad. Overlooking good, young, cheap players is bad. Signing a crummy player to a long, expensive contract that will serve to block the good, young, cheap player is downright criminal. Now I understand that Kemp has his defensive shortcomings as a center-fielder but for one season he would have been passable and definitely netted out superior than Pierre. I say one season because if the Dodgers were serious about opening their pocketbook for a center-fielder, two that are genuinely good players are free agents after the 2007 season (Torii Hunter and Andruw Jones). Andruw Jones flanked by Kemp and Andre Ethier would have looked pretty nice in 2008, don't you think Dodger fans? Instead it's four more years of Pierre and who knows when Kemp will get his regular shot?
Adam Lind, Toronto Blue Jays
PECOTA ZIPS Adam Lind .296/.349/.493 .296/.350/.466 Reed Johnson .275/.329/.420 .286/.346/.423
This one is not too egregious given that Johnson is a pretty good player and coming off a career season. But the numbers above give you a pretty good indication that Adam Lind figures to be the better option if just given the job outright. And in the ultra-competitive AL East, can the Blue Jays afford to give away runs and wins? If the Jays want to optimize their chances of qualifying for their first post-season berth since they won the World Series in 1993, they will give Lind the nod.
These are the players that I see catching the short end of the stick in 2007. Maybe I have too little faith and some of the teams will make the right personnel decisions. Or perhaps I will even look sillier. Maybe Reggie Sanders will have a huge year?
In the comments section, I would love to know which position players readers think will be deserving of a more prominent role than they will be given.